By Margaret Ernst
It starts with a crowd roaring. Then the beat.
“Wake up!” someone screams.
An emcee comes onto the mic, subduing the shouts. The players are announced. Sumayahh Abdul-Rahim, Ibrahim Abdul-Rahim’s young daughter. Jessica Nelson ’12, who met Abdul-Rahim behind the conveyor belt in the Erdman dish room last year. Allison Keefe ’11, who acts on Tracks 2, 6, 11, and 15.
And of course, there’s Ibrahim, “the self-proclaimed leader of the Rooftop Regime”.
Abdul-Rahim started working at Bryn Mawr’s Erdman Dining Hall in 2003, and now coaches the track team part-time. He’s been rapping since seventh grade, he says, and in November, self-released a meticulous hip-hop album 18 years in the making. It’s called “Take Over the Block”, but Abdul-Rahim says the title is metaphorical.
“Let’s step out of the hood, and realize it’s a larger world out there that we can have a piece of too,” he says, his voice passionate and didactic.
“I’m like, fuck the block. Stop thinking so small.”
Stick “Take over the Block” into a CD player and you’ll hear 18 variegated, sharply-layered tracks. Abdul-Rahim’s lyrics are assertive, unafraid. They’re woven together with clips from historical speeches and for comic relief, fake commercials a la Saturday Night Live.
Abdul-Rahim talks about God—he’s been Muslim since 2008—police harassment, the meaningless of today’s biggest rap artists, and the apartment complex in San Diego where he grew up. He draws from funk, classic hip-hop, reggae, and old school R&B. On Track 3, Abdul-Rahim raps over the vigorous bass of Metallica.
He sits in the Campus Center on a Tuesday, about to go to track practice. On Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays, you can hear Abdul-Rahim chatting above the crashing of dishes on the the conveyor belt. He speaks with loud, emphatic rhythm kind of like the way he raps, sometimes about politics or his family, and often, about hip-hop. But on Tuesday, Abdul-Rahim wears jeans and a brown jacket, and when goes outside, a red and orange patterned scarf that he tosses around his shoulders.
“When I was coming up, it was all about rappers being smart,” says Abdul-Rahim. “You might have a class that can teach you how to rap now…but 20 years ago?”
He smiles, his eyebrows raised doubtfully.
“It was like, you just gotta go out there and hope you don’t look stupid.”
In a time in which hip-hop is a corporate commodity, humming perpetually from the flat screen TV in Erdman, Abdul-Rahim sounds like a sage when he talks about rap culture used to be like. He first started recording in 1988 with seven friends, his crew who called themselves anything related to “rooftop”.
There were brown stucco walls and blue roofs where they were living in San Diego, and first the seven called themselves the “Flu Roof Posse”. It would have been “Blue Roof”, but because their neighborhood was Blood-affiliated, they avoided anything beginning with “b”—referring to the blue affiliated with the Crypts.
Abdul-Rahim recalls when he first realized he could try rapping to express himself, years before. He wasn’t a popular kid, he says. His mother wouldn’t let him watch anything on TV except the news. He read scores of books. Then one day at lunch, a crowd of kids gathered around two eighth-graders battling with rhymes. It looked like people watching a fight, and he drew closer.
“But nobody was breaking— just two kids rapping.”
That’s when Abdul-Rahim thought: I can do that.
That’s not to say rapping comes automatically. Abdul-Rahim says it was a skill he had to study and learn. And like an athlete, he has to stay in shape—”it’s like mental conditioning,” he says.
“For me, it’s all about the lyrics,” he says.
That’s because when he started, with someone beat boxing at lunch or in the locker room, the lyrics were all he had.
In the first recording studio he entered, he wrote verses covering college-ruled paper, and from veterans, learned how to separate his bars. Now in his late thirties and 3000 miles away from the friends with whom he first made music, Abdul-Rahim is starting from scratch. He’s made a studio in his house in West Philly, and without the resources of others, or their ideas, his first solo album comprises a completely solo vision. He invited Philly friends to help put it together, and after he found about their different talents, brought Bryn Mawr students he met in Erdman to contribute too.
“Take Over the Block” is self-conscious, spanning Abdul-Rahim’s experience and imagination from San Diego to Cleveland, where crowds first listened to Malcom X speak about “The Ballot and the Bullet. The sparse “Just Ain’t Right”, written by Abdul-Rahim 18 years ago, is a powerful recollection of two defining memories, each devoted two long verses. One, when he was harassed by the police in 1990, because he just “fit the description.” The other was four months later, when, with a group of friends who were in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, he was shot by Crypts.
Over a menacingly simple synth line, Abdul-Rahim tells the story, followed by an overlay of sirens and terrifying screams.
“You know me, we was talking about God, that’s it/Almost done, I was comin’ to my conclusion/when we was interrupted by the gang-bangers’ intrusion.”
The incident was fresh in his mind when he wrote it at seventeen.
“I want people to know that you don’t have to be a criminal to be harassed by the police.”
“You don’t have to be a gang-banger to be shot by gang-bangers.”
Track 7 is a celebration of Malcolm X.
“I was washing pots in Erdman on Martin Luther King day,” Abdul-Rahim says, about his inspiration for the song. The radio was devoting a special to Martin Luther King, and Abdul-Rahim, who learned about Islam from the Nation of Islam but, like Malcolm X, became disillusioned with its anti-white rhetoric, wondered if there was a song about Malcolm too. Rather than wait, he says, he wrote one himself.
That “Take Over the Block” is “heavy” in its political message is perhaps a message itself, particularly about the contemporary hip-hop scene.
Abdul-Rahim says that sure, he could easily write raps about drugs or girls or killing and shooting. But the mark of a “true MC” he says, is one who says something, who keeps the party going, and says lyrics the grandmas and the little kids will like too.
“Some people think “Take Over the Block” is about taking over somebody’s drug spot or something,” says Abdul-Rahim.
He bends over, his excited, as if the secret behind the title is secret and explosive. Because really, he says, it’s not about the block.
“It’s about taking over the world.”